Saturday, December 21, 2013

Filling the Holes in America's False Narrative

Distant Mirror: A Nation of Patsies, 50 Years On

by Chris Floyd - Empire Burlesque

Alex Cox was in full flow, holding forth across the candle-glittered wine glasses and fine china plates. The two of us had more or less gate-crashed High Table at an Oxford college.

He had been artist-in-residence there for a year, but that year had passed and it was not entirely clear that he retained his dining privileges -- much less the right to invite a hick from the sticks for a free feed with the Fellows. But there we were.

He was in town trying to drum up money for a series of films based on Jacobean plays; I was, very briefly and completely ineffectually, helping him. Ignoring High Table protocol, which dictates a change of conversational partner with each new course, Alex kept up his passionate dialogue with me. He was talking of 9/11, then just a couple of years past, and how the official story was full of holes.

It’s still full of holes, of course. All the “official” stories -- 9/11, both Iraq Wars, Iran-Contra, Libya, Kosovo, the Osama rub-out, on and on -- are full of holes. Holes, evasions, misdirections, outright lies: black oil-smoke to hide the enormity and ubiquity of state crime, which each scandal and catastrophe threatens to expose, whether or not there is some direct official culpability in the particular matter at hand. The whole business of empire is carried out in a rolling, heaving hairball of infinitely tangled connections between the upperworld and the underworld, where ruthless factions use, betray, fight and ally with each other in ever-changing combinations. Any sliver of light falling anywhere on the hairball must be snuffed out immediately, lest it illuminate the true nature of the system.

I don’t remember us drawing any profound conclusions between the many courses that night. But the scorching skepticism we shared toward official stories had its origin in the same place, in the mother of all hole-ridden, oil-smoked hairballs: the Kennedy assassination.

As Cox notes in his new book, The President and the Provocateur, he was 8 years old when John Kennedy was killed. (I was five, but I remember it too; or rather, what I most remember was not Kennedy's assassination but Oswald's, being reported on our grainy black-and-white television as we came home from church.) Even then, Cox was struck by the strangeness of the event; shortly after reporting Kennedy was shot, he writes, the BBC suddenly went off the air for several hours -- an unprecedented event. Afterwards, the entire bipartisan British Establishment, mimicking its American counterpart, closed ranks around the official account, locking out the questions even of such redoubtable figures as Bertrand Russell. It was only a few years later that Cox ran across a pamphlet voicing the credible concerns that Russell and others had raised about the Warren Commission's obvious oil-smoke job -- a serendipitous find that set him off on the decades of diligent research summed up in the book. (And on its accompanying website here.)

Cox synthesizes a vast corpus of investigation into the hydra-headed morass of the Kennedy murder to succinct and powerful effect. With a director’s eye for cinematic jump cuts and well-paced narrative, Cox juxtaposes the parallel lives of Kennedy and Oswald as they race toward their joint rendezvous with death in Dallas in November 1963. Cox is especially good at laying out Oswald’s remarkable trajectory, which was surrounded in still-impenetrable murk even from his earliest years. (The “official story” has young Oswald attending two different junior highs in two different states at the same time, for example.) Oswald’s innumerable contacts with the “National Security State” are laid bare – including the fact that this brazen ‘defector’ to the Soviets, who openly declared his intent to reveal state secrets (from his work in the U2 intelligence-gathering program), was not only allowed back into the United States, but was even given a loan by the government to cover the expenses of his return.

Meanwhile, Kennedy is shown dealing with open insubordination from the military-industrial-security complex, enduring a level of hatred and vitriol from these armed and dangerous factions that makes the Tea Party look like purring pussycats – even as he cravenly appeased them at nearly every turn. Cox is careful not to paint JFK in falsely heroic colors; his Kennedy is no liberal saint brought down by evildoers, but an active accomplice in imperial crime who, toward the end of his short life, was -- perhaps – just beginning to grasp the enormity of the devil’s bargain he had made to win power.

Cox comes to no ultimate conclusions. Among the many power factions that wanted Kennedy removed, Cox seems to incline toward his mentor Mark Lane’s view that the CIA was likely a prime mover. But whatever else the mysterious Oswald might have been (including, without doubt, an agent or asset of the security state), the book’s skillful mastering of the facts makes it clear that he was, in the end, exactly what he claimed to be after his arrest: a patsy.

And so are we all, fifty years on: a nation of patsies, still being played by the brutal power-gamers of our unlovely imperium.

A slightly revised version of my column in the latest print version of CounterPunch magazine.

Canada's Duplicity on Israel's Settlements

Open letter to John Baird, Canadian Foreign Minister

by Hanna Kawas, Chairperson, Canada Palestine Association

Mr. Baird; Your latest call for the removal of Richard Falk, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories, smacks of hypocrisy and racism; it also exposes your (and your government’s) blind support for Israeli war crimes and Apartheid.

While your government officially claims that “Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip)”, you are nonetheless supporting not only settlement building but also settlement products that are not exempt under the “Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA)”. 
You, your Prime Minister and your government also support unconditionally the discriminatory policies of the “Jewish National Fund” (JNF), which is financing illegal Israeli settlements and the infamous Canada Park that is built on the rubble of three Palestinian towns in the occupied West Bank. By doing so, you are violating the Fourth Geneva Conventions to which Canada is a signatory.

Your comments not only “undermine the fundamental values of the United Nations”, they also deny the terrible suffering and the slow genocide of the Palestinian people since the Zionist ethnic cleansing started in 1947/48. Recently, your spokesperson Rick Roth dismissed the new mini-genocide, the “Prawer Plan” which the Israeli government is planning for the Bedouin Israelis, as an “internal Israeli matter”.

You called for Prof. Falk to be fired “for his numerous outrageous and anti-Semitic statements”. However, it is your statement that is outrageous and libelous considering that he is a Jewish international law scholar that fought all his life for the truth, justice, equality and peace (contrary to what your government stands for). 
Once again it is you Mr. Baird that is promoting anti-Semitism by claiming that everything Israel does falls on the shoulders of all Jews. We asked you previously, clearly to no avail: “Mr. Baird: Don’t Equate Zionism with Judaism”.

Stop taking your marching orders from Tel Aviv and start, if you care for your dignity and humanity, listening to the vast majority of Canadians who yearn for peace and justice.

Hanna Kawas,
Chairperson, Canada Palestine Association

Volker Rule Cruel Bankster's Joke on America

Punking Ourselves to Death

by James Kunstler - Clusterfuck Nation

The so-called Volker Rule for policing (ha!) banking practices, approved by a huddle of federal regulating agency chiefs last week, is the latest joke that America has played on itself in what is becoming the greatest national self-punking exercise in world history.

First of all (and there’s a lot of all), this rule comes in the form of nearly 1,000 pages of incomprehensible legalese embedded in what was already a morbidly obese Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform (ha!) and Consumer Protection (ha!) Act of 2012 that clocked in at 2000 pages, not counting the immense rafts of mandated interpretations and adumbrations, of which the new Volker Rule is but one.

These additions were required because the Dodd-Frank Act itself did not really spell out the particulars of enforcement but rather left it to the regulatory agencies to construct the rules — which they did with “help” of lobbyist-lawyers furnished by the banks themselves. That is, the lobbyists actually wrote the rules for Dodd-Frank and everything in it, which means the banks wrote the rules. Does this strain your credulity? Well, this is the kind of nation we have become: anything goes and nothing matters. There really is no rule of law, just pretense.

The Volker Rule was a lame gesture toward restoring the heart of the Glass-Steagall provisions of the Banking Act of 1933, which were repealed in 1999 in a cynical effort led by Wall Street uber-grifter Robert Rubin and his sidekick Larry Summers, who served serially as US Treasury Secretaries under Bill Clinton. Glass Steagall was passed in Congress following revelations of gross misconduct among bankers leading up to the stock market crash of 1929. The main thrust of Glass Steagall was to mandate the separation of commercial banking (deposit accounts + lending) from investment banking (underwriting and trading in securities). The idea was to prevent banks from using money in customer deposit accounts to gamble in stocks and other speculative instruments. This rule was designed to work hand-in-hand with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), also created in 1933, to backstop the accounts of ordinary citizens in commercial banks. The initial backstop limits were very modest: $2,500 at inception, and didn’t rise above $40,000 until 1980. Investment banks, on the other hand, were not backstopped at all under Glass-Steagall, since their activities were construed as a form of high-toned gambling.

The Glass Steagall Act of 1933 was about 35 pages long, written in language that was precise, clear, and succinct. It worked for 66 years. Banking during those years was a pretty boring business, commercial banking especially. It operated on the 3-6-3 principle — pay 3 percent interest on deposits, lend at 6 percent, and be out on the golf course at 3 p.m. Bankers made a nice living but nothing like the obscene racketeering profits engineered by the looting operations of today. Before 1980, the finance sector of the economy was about 5 percent of all activity. Its purpose was to allocate precious capital to new productive ventures.

As American manufacturing was surrendered to other countries, there were fewer productive ventures for capital to be directed into. What remained was real estate development (a.k.a. suburban sprawl) and finance, which was the enabler of it. Finance ballooned to 40 percent of the US economy and the American landscape got trashed. The computer revolution of the 1990s stimulated tremendous “innovation” in financial activities. Much of that innovation turned out to be new species of swindles and frauds. Now you understand the history of the so-called “housing bubble” and the crash of 2008. The US never recovered from it, and all the rescue attempts in the form of bail-outs, quantitative easing, zero interest rates, have turned into rackets aimed at papering-over this national failure to thrive. It is all ultimately linked to the larger story of industrialism and its relationship with the unique, finite, fossil fuel resources that the human race got cheaply for a few hundred years. That story is now winding down and we refuse to pay attention to the reality of it.

The absurdity of Dodd-Frank and the Volker Rule in the face of that is just another symptom of that tragic inattention. The baroque prolixity of these statutes must have been fun for the lawyers to construct — thousands of pages of incantatory nonsense aimed at confounding any attempt to enforce decent conduct among bankers and their supposed regulators — but it does nothing to really help us move into the next phase of history.

Restraining America's Imperial Impulse: Obama's New Tack Promises Capitol Conflict

The Changing Contours of US Imperial Intervention in World Conflicts

by James Petras

Following the Vietnam War, US imperial intervention passed through several phases: In the immediate aftermath, the US government faced a humiliating military defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese liberation forces and was under pressure from an American public sick and tired of war.Imperial military interventions, domestic espionage against opponents and usual practice of fomenting coups d’état (regime change) declined.

Slowly, under President Gerald Ford and, especially President ‘Jimmy’ Carter, an imperial revival emerged in the form of clandestine support for armed surrogates in Southern Africa – Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau--- and neo-liberal military dictatorships in Latin America.

The first large-scale imperial intervention was launched during the second half of the Carter Presidency. It involved massive support for the Islamist uprising against the secular government of Afghanistan and a mercenary jihadist invasion sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the US (1979).

This was followed by direct US invasions in Grenada (1983) under President Reagan; Panama (1989) and Iraq (1991) under President Bush Sr. and Yugoslavia (1995 and 1999) under President Clinton.


In the beginning, the imperial revival involved low cost wars of brief duration with few casualties. As a result there were very few voices of dissent, far diminished from the massive anti-war, anti-imperial movements of the early 1970’s. The restoration of direct US imperial interventions, unhindered by Congressional and popular opposition, was gradual in the period 1973-1990. It started to accelerate in the 1990’s and then really took off after September 11, 2001.

The imperial military and ideological apparatus for direct intervention was firmly in place by 2000. It led to a prolonged series of wars in multiple geographical locations, involving long-term, large-scale commitments of economic resources, and military personnel and was completely unhampered by congressional or large-scale public opposition – at least in the beginning. The ‘objectives’ of these serial wars were defined by their principal Zionist and militarist architects as the following: (1) destroying regimes and states (as well as their military, police and civil governing bureaucracies) which had opposed Israel’s annexation of Palestine; (2) deposing regimes which promoted independent nationalist policies, opposing or threatening the Gulf puppet monarchist regimes and supporting anti-imperialist, secular or nationalist-Islamic movements around the world.

Blinded by their imperial hubris (or naked racism) neither the Zionists nor the civilian militarists within the US Administrations anticipated prolonged national resistance from the targeted countries, the regrouping of armed opposition and the spread of violent attacks (including terrorism) to the imperial countries. Having utterly destroyed the Afghan and Iraqi state structures, as well as the regime in power, and having devastated the economy as well as any central military or police capacity, the imperial state was faced with endless armed civilian ethno-religious and tribal resistance (including suicide bombings), mounting US troop casualties and spiraling costs to the domestic economy without any “exit strategy”. The imperial powers were unable to set up a stable and loyal client regime, backed by a unified state apparatus with a monopoly of force and violence, after having deliberately shredded these structures (police, bureaucracy, civil service, etc) during the invasion and early occupation.

The creation of this “political vacuum” was never a problem for the Zionists embedded in the US Administrations since their ultimate goal was to devastate Israel’s enemies. As a result of the US invasions, the regional power of Israel was greatly enhanced without the loss of a single Israeli soldier or shekel. The Zionists within the Bush Administration successfully blamed the ensuing problems of the occupation, especially the growing armed resistance, on their ‘militarist’ colleagues and the Pentagon ‘Brass’. ‘Mission Accomplished’, the Bush Administration Zionists left the government , moving on to lucrative careers in the private financial sector.

Under President Obama, a new ‘cast’ of embedded Zionists have emerged to target Iran and prepare the US for a new war on Israel’s behalf. However, by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, when Barak Obama was elected president, the political, economic and military situation had changed. The contrast in circumstances between the earlyBush (Jr.) years and the current administration is striking.

The 20-year period (1980-2000) before the launching of the ‘serial war’ agenda was characterized by short, inexpensive, low-casualty wars in Grenada, Panama and Yugoslavia, and a proxy war in Afghanistan. Israeli invasions and attacks against Lebanon, the occupied West Bank and Syria .One major US war of short duration and limited casualties against Iraq (the First Gulf War). The First Gulf War succeeded in weakening the government of Saddam Hussein, fragmenting the country via ‘no fly zones’, establishing a Kurdish client ‘state’ in the north while ‘policing’ was left to the remnants of the Iraqi state – all without having to occupy the country.

Meanwhile, the US economy was relatively stable and trade deficits were manageable. The real economic crisis was still to come. Military expenditures appeared under control. US public opinion, initially hostile to the First Gulf War was “pacified” by its short duration and the withdrawal of US troops. Iraq remained under aerial surveillance with frequent US bombing and missile strikes whenever the government attempted to regain control of the north. During this period, Israel was forced to fight its own wars and maintain an expensive occupation of southern Lebanon – losing its own soldiers.

By the second decade of the 21st century everything had changed. The US was bogged down in a prolonged thirteen year war and occupation in Afghanistan with little hope for a stable client regime in Kabul. The seven-year war against Iraq (Second Gulf War) with the massive occupation, armed civilian insurgency and the resurgence of ethno-religious conflict resulted in casualties and a crippling growth in US military expenditures. Budget and trade deficits expanded exponentially while the US share of the world market declined. China displaced the US as the principle trading partner in Latin America, Asia and Africa. A series of new ‘low intensity’ wars were launched in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan which show no prospect of ending the drain on the military and the US Treasury.

The vast majority of the US public has experienced a decline in living standards and now believes the cost of overseas wars are a significant factor contributing to their relative impoverishment and insecurity. The multi-trillion-dollar bailout of the Wall Street banks during the economic crash of 2008-09 has eroded public support for the financial elite as well as the militarist-Zionist elite, which continue to push for more imperial wars.

The capacity of the US imperial elite to launch new wars on Israel’s behalf has been greatly undermined since the economic crash of 2008-09. The gap between the rulers and ruled has widened. Domestic economic issues, not the threat of external terrorists, have become the central concern. The public sees the Middle East as a region of unending costly wars – with no benefit to the domestic economy. Asia has become the center of trade, growth, investment and a major source of US jobs. While Washington continues to ignore the citizens’ views, accumulated grievances are beginning to have an impact.

A Pew Research report, released in late 2013, confirms the wide gap between elite and public opinion. The Pew Foundation is an establishment polling operation, which presents its questions in a way that avoids the larger political questions.

Nevertheless, the responses presented in the report are significant:
By a vast margin (52% to 38%) the public agree that the US “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”. 

This represents a major increase in public opposition to armed US imperialist intervention and the 52% response in 2013 contrasts sharply with 30% polled 2002. A companion poll of elite policy advisors, members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), highlights the gap between the US public and the ruling class. The elite are described by the Pew Report as having a ‘decidedly internationalist (imperialist-interventionist) outlook’.

The American public clearly distinguishes between ‘trade’ and ‘globalization’ (imperialism.): 81% of the public favor ‘trade’ as a source of job creation while 73% oppose ‘globalization’ which they see as US companies relocating jobs overseas to low wage regions. 

The US public rejects imperial economic expansion and wars for the harm done to the domestic economy, middle and working class income and job security. The members of the Council on Foreign Relations, in contrast, are overwhelmingly in favor of ‘globalization’ (and imperial interventions). While 81% of the public believe the principle goal of US foreign policy should be the protection of American jobs, only 29% of the CFR rate US jobs as a priority.

The elite is conscious of the growing gap in interests, values and priorities between the public and the imperial state; they know that endless costly wars have led to a mass rejection of new imperial wars and a growing demand for domestic job programs.

This gap between the imperial policy elite and the majority of the public is one of the leading factors now influencing US foreign policy. Together with the general discredit of the Congress (only 9% favorable), the public’s rejection of President Obama’s militarist foreign policy has seriously weakened the empire’s capacity to begin new large-scale ground wars at multiple sites.

Meanwhile, Israel (Washington’s foreign patron), the Gulf State clients and European and Japanese allies have been pushing the US to intervene and confront ‘their adversaries’. To this end, Israel and the Zionist Power Configuration within the US government have been undermining peace negotiations between the US and Iran. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, as well as Turkey are urging the US to attack Syria. The French had successfully pushed the US into a war against the Gaddafi government in Libya and have their sights on their former colony in Syria. The US has given only limited backing to the French military intervention in Mali and the Central African Republic.

The US public is aware that none of Washington’s ‘militarist’ patrons, clients and allies has paid such a high price in terms of blood and treasure as the US in the recent wars. The Saudi, Israeli and French “publics” have not experienced the socio-economic dislocations confronting the US public. For these ‘allied’ regimes, the cheapest way to resolve their own regional conflicts and promote their own ambitions is to convince, coerce or pressure the US to “exercise its global leadership”.

Washington’s imperial policymakers, by background, history, ideology and past experience, are sensitive to these appeals – especially those from the Israelis. But they also recognize the growing “intervention fatigue” among the American public, the CFR’s euphemism for rising anti-imperialist feelings among the American majority, which is saying ‘no’ to further imperial military interventions.

Faced with choice of acting as an unfettered imperial power with global interests and facing rising domestic discontent, Washington has been forced to revise its foreign policy and strategies. It is adopting a more nuanced approach, one less vulnerable to external pressures and manipulations.

Imperial Foreign Policy in a Time of Domestic Constraints and External Pressures

US empire builders, with increasingly limited military options and declining domestic support, have begun to (1) prioritize their choice of places of engagement, (2) diversify their diplomatic, political and economic instruments of coercion and (3) limit large-scale, long-term military intervention to regions where US strategic interests are involved. Washington is not shedding its militarist polices by any means, but it is looking for ways to avoid costly long-term wars which further undermine the domestic economy and intensify domestic political opposition.

In order to decipher US imperial policy in this new context, it is useful to first (1) identify the regions of conflict, (2) estimate the significance of these countries and conflicts to the empire and, (3) analyze the particular interventions and their impact on US empire building. Our purpose is to show how the interplay between domestic and external countervailing pressures affects imperial policy.

Conflicts which Engage US Empire Builders

There are at least eleven major or minor conflicts today engaging US empire builders to a greater or lesser extent. A major premise of our approach is that US empire builders are more selective in their aggression, more conscious of the economic consequences, less reckless in their commitments and have a greater concern for domestic political impact. Current conflicts of interest to Washington include those taking place in the Ukraine, Thailand, Honduras, China-Japan-South Korea, Iran-Gulf States/Israel, Syria, Venezuela, Palestine-Israel, Libya, Afghanistan and Egypt.

These conflicts can be classified according to whether they involve major or minor US interests and whether they involve major or minor allies or adversaries. Among the conflicts where the US has strategic interests and which involve major actors, one would have to include the territorial and maritime dispute between Japan, South Korea and China. On the surface the dispute appears to be over economically insignificant pile of rocks claimed by the Japanese as the Senkaku Islands and by the Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands. In essence, the conflict involves the US plan to militarily encircle China by provoking its Japanese and Korean allies to confront the Chinese over the islands. Washington’s treaties with Japan will be used to come to the ‘aid’ of its most important ally in the region. The US support of Japan’s expansionist claims is part of a strategic shift in US policy from military commitments in the Middle East to military and economic pacts in Asia, which exclude and provoke China.

The Obama Regime has announced its ‘Pivot to Asia’ in an attempt to deal with its largest economic competitor. China, the second biggest economy in the world, has displaced the US as the principle trading partner in Latin America and Asia. It is advancing rapidly as the principal investor in developing Africa’s natural resources. In response, the US has (1) openly backed Japan’s claims, (2) defied China’s strategic interests in the East China Sea by flying B52 bombers within China’s Air Defense Identification Zone and (3) encouraged South Korea to expand its ‘air defense’ zones to overlap with those of the Chinese. History teaches us that inflexible assertions of dominance by established imperial powers against rising dynamic economies will lead to conflicts, and even disastrous wars.

Imperial advisers believe that US naval and air superiority and Chinese dependence on foreign trade give the US a strategic advantage in any armed confrontation. Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” is clearly designed to encircle and degrade China’s capacity to outcompete and displace the US from world markets. Washington’s militarists, however, fail to take account of China’s strategic levers – especially the over two trillion dollars of US Treasury notes (debt) held by China, which, if dumped on the market, would lead to a major devaluation of the US currency, panic on Wall Street and a deeper economic depression. China could respond to US military threats by (1) seizing the assets of the 500 biggest US MNCs located in the country which would crash the stock market and (2) cutting off the source for major supply chains, further disrupting the US and world economy.

Imperialist ambitions and resentment over the loss of markets, status, and supremacy is pushing Washington to raise the stakes and confront China. Opposing the militarists, Washington’s economic realists believe the US is too exposed and too dependent on credit, overseas earnings and financial revenues to engage in new military interventions in Asia, especially after the disastrous consequences of wars in the Middle East. Current US policy reflects an ongoing struggle between the militarist imperialists and the defenders of imperial economic interests. For the market-oriented policy advisers, it makes no sense to confront China, when mutual gains from rising trade and economic inter-dependence have proven far superior to any marginal territorial gains offshore. These conflicting outlooks find expression in the alternating bellicose and conciliatory rhetoric of Vice President Biden during his December visit to Japan, China and South Korea.

The second area involving major actors and interests is the Persian Gulf, especially Israel-Iran-Saudi Arabia and the US. Having gone through costly and disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and fully aware that US intelligence agencies have found no evidence of an Iran nuclear weapons program, the Obama Administration is eager to reach an agreement with Iran. Nevertheless, US strategists are pursuing an agreement that would (1) weaken Iran’s defense capability, (2) undermine Iranian support for popular revolts among Shiite populations living in the Gulf Monarchies, (3) isolate President Bashar Assad in Syria and (4) facilitate a long-term US presence in Afghanistan by destroying Al Qaeda operations throughout the region. In addition a US – Iran agreement would lift the harsh economic sanctions and (1) allow US oil companies to exploit Iran’s richest oil fields, (2) lower the cost of energy and (3) reduce US trade deficits.

A major stumbling block to any US-Iran agreement is from the well-entrenched Zionist strategists and advisers among policy-makers, especially in the Executive Branch, including such Department heads and Secretaries as Treasury Undersecretary (for ‘Terrorism’) David Cohen, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, US Trade Representative Michael Froman, ‘Special Adviser for the Persian Gulf’ Dennis Ross among others. An even greater obstacle to the agreement comes from the Zionist-controlled US Congress, which acts more on behalf of Israel’s regional ambitions than for US interests. Israel’s megalomaniacal rulers seek military, political and economic supremacy throughout the Middle East (from Sinai to the Gulf) and have so far successfully used the US military to destroy and weaken its adversaries at no cost to Israeli soldiers or economy.

Israel has taken a direct hand in setting the terms, which the US will demand from Iran. According to the Financial Times (12/8/13, p. 4), “A team of senior Israeli officials led by Yossi Cohen, national security adviser, is due to visit Washington … to begin detailed discussions with the Obama Administration to use its influence in shaping the negotiating agenda.”

Secretary of State John Kerry has already caved in to Israeli pressure stating, “We will be stepping up on enforcement (of existing sanctions) through the Treasury Department,” (FT 12/18/13, p. 4). Israel and its top Zionist agent within the Obama Administration, Dennis Ross, are pushing for a joint Israeli-US “working group” to discuss tightening sanctions on Iran and punishing any government or business which tries to do business with Iran during the “interim agreement”, a position pursued by David Cohen and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew (FT 12/ 13/13). Israel is behind the US demand that Iran convert its Arak Facilities from a heavy water into a light-water reactor and reduce its centrifuges by 95% from 19,000 to 1,000.

In other words, Israel dictates terms to the US negotiators that will effectively sabotage any possible agreement and put the US on a course toward another war for Israel. Surprisingly, Israel’s hardliners and its agents within the US Administration have an important and unlikely ally – Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javid Zarif, the chief negotiator in Geneva, who has downplayed Iran’s military capabilities and exaggerated US military capabilities and seems quite willing to dismantle Iran’s peaceful nuclear program. In justifying his far-reaching concessions and meager returns, Foreign Minister Zarif publicly declared that ‘the US could destroy the country’s (Iran’s) defense system with one bomb!” (FT, 12/10/13, p. 2) Zarif, in effect, is preparing to sell out Iran’s nuclear industry, in advance, without any objective consideration of Iran’s military power or recognition of US strategic weaknesses.

Saudi Arabia’s rulers influence US policy through their contracts with the military – industrial complex – amounting to over $20 billion dollar arms purchase in 2013. In addition, the Saudi Monarch has allowed the construction of US military bases on its territory and maintains close ties with Wall Street investment houses. Saudi opposition to any US – Iran rapprochement arises from Riyadh’s fear of Iranian influence over its oppressed Shia minority and Tehran’s critique of the absolutist monarchy.

The positive gains, in terms of US strategic military and economic interests from an agreement with the liberal Iranian regime, are offset by the negative pressures from Saudi and Israeli-Zionists interests. As a result, Washington’s policy oscillates between peaceful, diplomatic overtures to Iran and bellicose threats to appease Israel and Saudi Arabia. Washington is desperate to avoid being dragged into another “war for Israel”, in order to secure its hegemony in the Persian Gulf region and avoid a major domestic political and economic crisis. The Obama Administration has yet to exhibit the high degree of statesmanship necessary to restrain and neutralize the deeply embedded Zionist Power Configuration, within its ranks and in the Congress, which places Israeli interests over those of the US.

Regional Conflicts: Minor Interests and Major Actors

The Ukraine – European Union (EU) – Russian conflict involves minor US economic interests but potentially major military interests. The US supports the EU’s policy of incorporating the Ukraine into its economic and trade system. The EU will be the major beneficiary in the plunder of Ukraine’s economy, penetrating its market and reaping mega financial returns. The US is content to watch the EU play the major role in stoking Ukrainian civil unrest. If and when Ukraine joins the EU, it will become another client regime subject to the dictates of the bankers and bureaucrats in Brussels, just like Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy). The US is mainly interested in bringing the Ukraine into NATO as part of its policy of surrounding Russia.

Syria, like Libya, Mali, Central African Republic and Egypt, are of secondary interest for the US. Washington has let the European Union, especially France, England and their allies, lead and direct military operations directly and through proxies. The Obama Administration already faced intense “intervention fatigue” – widespread popular opposition to war - when it joined the EU in bombing Tripoli to rubble, but it refused to commit ground forces and left Libya a broken country without a viable economy, stable society or functioning state! So much for ‘humanitarian intervention’! Intervention in Syria has faced even greater domestic opposition from Congress and the US public – except for the Israeli and Saudi lobbies. Obama was clearly not willing to act as ‘Al Qaeda’s Air Force’ by bombing Damascus and facilitating a jihadist takeover. It chose diplomatic solution and accepted the Russian proposal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons. It appears to support a Geneva-based negotiated solution.

Another war, this time with Syria, would inflame US domestic discontent and further erode the economy, with no positive gain for US imperialism. In fact, US military victory over Damascus would expand the territory of operation for Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant. It was US public opinion that overcame the massive pro-Israel media barrage and pressure from the 52 Presidents of the Major American Jewish Organizations that had been actively pushing the Obama Administration into a ‘Syrian Quagmire’!

French President Francoise Hollande is the new face of imperial militarism and interventionism in Africa with its massive bombing in Libya and invasion and occupation in Mali and the Central African Republic. The US is content to play a ‘supporting role’ to France. It has no strategic involvement in Africa apart from its proxy wars in Somalia.

With public opinion strongly against any more major direct military intervention Washington has turned to military proxies for conflicts in ‘strategic’ and marginal countries and regions. Even where significant imperial interests may be involved, Washington increasingly relies on local elites to act on its behalf in conflicts in countries as diverse as Yemen, Thailand, Honduras, Venezuela, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt. Sending drones and dispatching teams of Special Forces in clandestine operations have been the US Administration’s intervention of choice in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, Special Forces combine with the US military, NATO troops and local client military proxies, as well as drones.

In Honduras, the US-backed military coup, which unleashed death squads with the killing of over 200 dissident activists in a two year period was followed by a fraudulent election which reclaimed ‘power’ for a US client regime. In Venezuela, the US continues to finance opposition parties who support violent street mobs, the sabotage of public services like electricity, while relying on local business elites to hoard basic goods and inflate prices. So far, these efforts to undermine the Venezuelan government have failed.


US Empire builders have relied on a wider variety of interventions than their predecessor under President George W. Bush. They are much less prone to launch large-scale ground operations and more likely to turn to local client elites. They have shown a far greater sense of priorities in selecting targets for direct intervention.

Washington relies more on its imperial European allies, especially the French, to take the lead in Africa, without relinquishing its key interest in maintaining Egypt tightly under US-Israeli control. There is a shift in priority toward the Far East, especially the countries bordering China, like Japan and South Korea, as part of the long-term US strategy to encircle and limit China’s economic expansion. The US ‘Pivot to Asia’, under the Obama Administration, is characterized by alternating economic negotiations with growing military encirclement.

Controlling the Persian Gulf and undermining Iran continues to be a high priority for US Empire builders, but the costly and disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq under George W. Bush and its adverse domestic fallout, has led Washington to rely less on military confrontation with Tehran and more on economic sanctions, military encirclement and now diplomatic negotiations to secure collaboration from the new Rouhani regime.

The principle strategic weakness in US empire building policy lies in the absence of domestic support. There is a growing demand for better paying jobs to reverse the decline of US living standards and greater protection for social services and livelihoods. The second strategic weakness is found in the incapacity of the US to create a viable economic “co-prosperity sphere”, which would win allies in Asia and Latin America.

The so-called “Pivot to Asia” is overly and overtly reliant on military (mostly naval) power, which functions in times of ‘territorial conflicts’ with China, but does not create stable, structural links with local productive elites – who rely on China for trade. In the end the most serious obstacle to effectively adapting US foreign policy to the current realities is the influential Israel-linked-Zionist Power Configuration embedded in the Congress, the Administration and the mass media.

Zionists are deeply committed to pushing the US into more wars for Israel. Nevertheless the shift to negotiations with Iran, the refusal to bomb Syria and the reluctance to get involved in the Ukraine are all indications that Washington is less inclined to launch more large-scale military intervention and more receptive to the public opinion constraints on the exercise of imperial power.

Shia Crescent Rising: Securing the 'Arc of Instability'

"Security Arc" forms amidst Mideast terror

by Sharmine Narwani - Sandbox - Al Akhbar


Many observers are correct in noting that the Middle East is undergoing yet another seismic shift - that the Russian-brokered destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, a US-Iranian rapprochement, the diminished strategic value of Saudi Arabia and Israel, and a US withdrawal from Afghanistan will all contribute to changing regional dynamics considerably.

But what is this new direction? Where will it come from, who will lead it, what will define it?

It has now become clear that the new Mideast "direction" is guided primarily by the “security threat" posed by the proliferation of extremist, sectarian, Islamist fighters in numbers unseen even in Afghanistan or Iraq. This shared danger has been the impetus behind a flurry of global diplomatic deals that has spawned unexpected cooperation between a diverse mix of nations, many of them adversaries.

These developments come with a unique, post-imperialist twist, though. For the first time in decades, this direction will be led from inside the region, by those Mideast states, groups, sects and parties most threatened by the extremism.

Because nobody else is coming to “save” the Middle East today.

As Salafist militants swarm various borders – from the Levant to the Persian Gulf to North Africa and beyond – states are disintegrating, their territorial integrity and sovereignty under threat, their institutions and economies in shambles, and their armed forces impotent against the irregular warfare practiced by these invaders.

But from within this chaos, a group of countries on the frontline of the battle has decided to give shape to a solution.

Their answer is to fight the militancy directly, to weed it out of their areas and cut off its roots. Already, they are sharing intelligence, cooperating in the battlefield with their collective resources and working to secure support from the international community.

And so while states are weakening elsewhere in the region, a security alliance is emerging out of a stretch of countries from the Levant to the Persian Gulf: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

According to a number of informed sources in the Levant, interviewed over the course of several months, this “Security Arc” will seek to achieve several objectives: First, to maintain the territorial integrity and sovereignty of participating countries. Second, to establish rigorous military and security cooperation against immediate and future threats from extremists. Third, to forge a common political worldview that enhances the alliance and can lead to further collaboration in other arenas.

Jordan’s Sunni King Abdullah once dubbed these four nations the "Shia Crescent,” taking an unusually sectarian jab at the rise in influence of Shia governments and political parties in all four nations. But the security alliances now forming between the four states has little to do with common “sect.” Instead, Abdullah and his allies have a direct hand in the development of this grouping:

It was, after all, the region’s western-backed Arab monarchies that launched the “counter-revolution” to thwart popular Arab uprisings and re-direct them at their regional adversaries, via Syria. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, the UAE and their Western allies threw money, weapons, training and resources at unseating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - in a bid to weaken Iran, isolate Hezbollah and take care of that "Shia threat” once and for all.

But in their single-minded haste to cripple foes, Arab monarchies (supported by western allies) backed any co-religionist prepared to enter the fight and ignored the sectarian, extremist ideologies that these fighters embraced. They quite illogically calculated that the militancy could be controlled once the mission was accomplished.

To quote Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Ed Husain in August 2012: 
"The unspoken political calculation among (US) policymakers is to get rid of Assad first—weakening Iran's position in the region—and then deal with al-Qaeda later."

In the end, Assad didn’t fall, Iran didn’t waver, Hezbollah dug in, and the Russians and Chinese stepped into the fray. As the Syrian conflict developed into a regional geopolitical battle, heavy weapons, porous borders and increasingly sectarian rhetoric created a unique opportunity – from Lebanon to Iraq - for Salafist militants, including Al Qaeda, to gain influence and create a highly desirable corridor from the Levant to the Persian Gulf.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden says: 
"The dominant story going on in Syria is a Sunni fundamentalist takeover of a significant part of the Middle East geography, the explosion of the Syrian state and of the Levant as we know it."

Today, this ideological brand of political violence marked by summary executions, suicide bombings, beheadings and sectarianism threatens to unravel the entire area and turn it into a stomping ground for “emirs” and their fiefdoms governed by Shariah law. For some, this is a price worth paying – the Saudis continue unabashedly to fund and weaponize these conflicts. Other supporters, particularly in the West, have become fearful that the jihadi march will not stop at any border.

But few have taken any concrete steps to inhibit – financially or militarily - the proliferation of this extremism.

And so it is left for the targeted countries to tackle the problem. The same Western-Arab axis that sought to cripple “Shia” ascendency in the Middle East by fueling sectarianism and encouraging an armed "Sunni" reaction, has now created urgent common cause among Iranians, Syrians, Lebanese and Iraqis, based almost entirely on the “security” threat.

A self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will.

Not a Uniform Union

In Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, there exists significant - mainly Sunni - populations that currently do not back a security union between the four states. Decades of sectarian propaganda from the GCC and west has made this demographic highly suspicious of the intentions of Shia Iran and its allies.

Although these populations are just as likely to be targeted by Salafist militants who have now killed Sunni moderates (along with Christians, Kurds and Shia) in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, their reluctance to see political foes gain influence has often meant they have provided “cover” for militant co-religionists and allowed them to proliferate locally. The choice is painful for this demographic: let your adversaries rise or let extremists run amok.

But earlier this year, when Hezbollah took the decision to fight openly in Qusayr, Syria alongside the Syrian army, it became clear that the parties supporting this security alliance would no longer humor the dissenters.

This Security Arc would be forged with or without the approval of naysayers. And buy-in for the security imperative is coming from an unlikely source: the United States.

In the past few months, Washington has suddenly gone from backing a mostly Sunni ‘rebellion’ in Syria to reaching out to Iran. This about-turn stems from the realization that the US has dangerously overplayed its geopolitical game and allowed religious militancy to swell past the point of no return. Neither Washington nor its NATO partners can reverse this trend unaided. Both failed miserably in the decade-long, superficial “war on terror,” which, if anything, helped sow further seeds of extremism. The US now understands that it needs the assistance of vested regional partners and rising powers that face a more imminent threat from militants – Iran, Russia, China, India, Syria, Iraq, - not just to fight extremism, but to cut off its source…in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and other places.

The Americans are in an extremely difficult position: to tackle the spread of extremists, they will have to support military and security solutions from old foes in the region – Iran, Syria, Hezbollah. For starters, this means that 30-plus years of “policy” will literally be flushed away and Washington risks alienating longtime regional allies. Moreover, a successful outcome, i.e. eliminating extremism, will almost certainly mean the ascendency of Iran and the downfall of US-ally Saudi Arabia – among the many other reverberations throughout the Mideast that this will entail.

Washington's conflicting signals on the Middle East are a result of this tortured decision. Actions, however, speak louder than words: the US just struck a nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva in record time, having secretly opened direct channels of communications first. Last month, US President Barack Obama asked to meet his Iraqi counterpart Nuri al-Maliki – soon after, the US began sharing intelligence for the first time since American troops withdrew from Iraq. That first piece of intel, according to Az-Zaman, was on the movement of militants in the Anbar desert. Today, the US-Saudi relationship has soured to the point that even officials question any real convergence of interests; European ambassadors are starting to trek back to Damascus, their intelligence officials lining up to meet with their Syrian counterparts to share information on jihadists; the formidable Israelis have been shunted aside on some major Mideast decisions; NATO-member Turkey is working overtime to ease relations with Iran and Iraq. The list goes on.

These extraordinary developments would not have been feasible a mere six months ago when the blinkers were still on. The speed at which we have been ushered into a new "era of compromise" between adversaries is a testament to the extreme urgency of the jihadist/Salafist problem - and the lengths to which countries will go to address it.

Even if this means bulldozing through entrenched policy and turning it on its head.

As a senior Hezbollah source tells me: 
"The US is focused more on making arrangements directly with their opponents instead of relying on their allies."

There's good reason for that. Many of Washington's regional allies are a source of the instability and are having to be muzzled, coerced and cajoled into accepting the new realities. 

Some of these allies are political parties within the Security Arc. They're being brought into line more quickly now, partly because the threat of terrorism hovers in their own backyards. In Lebanon, for instance, a national army thus far restrained by pro-Saudi political interests looks set to finally tackle Salafist militants in key towns, cities and refugee camps where their numbers have swelled. That's a tremendous breakthrough after almost three years of sitting on the fence, waiting for "spillover" from Syria and taking virtually no security precautions to prevent it.

Security Arc: Plan of Action

Things are moving rapidly on every front. The convergence of extremist sectarian militias into the 50,000-strong "Islamic Front" has created further common cause on the other side. The US and UK last week withdrew support for rebels, belatedly fearing radicalization of the 'rebellion.' And Iran launched diplomatic efforts in neighboring Gulf states to divide their ranks against toeing the old adversarial line, succeeding when Oman refused to support a Saudi initiative for a GCC union.

But to stamp out jihadism in Syria and beyond, three main objectives need to be achieved - and it will take a collective effort to get there:

First, is to weed out extremists from inside the areas where they are growing in number and influence and where political will exists: inside the Security Arc, from within Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran. This is primarily a military solution – though some fighters may surrender/exit through negotiated political outreach, or when a mentoring state/individual calls it quits.

Second, is the establishment of a global sanctions regime to financially cripple jihadist/Salafist networks by targeting their sources of funding. This is already being done in small measure, but the West’s relationship with many of the violating states and individuals has prevented any genuine progress in the past. As Patrick Cockburn’s recent column in The Independent “Mass Murder in The Middle East is Funded By Our Friends The Saudis” points out: “Everyone knows where Al Qaeda gets its money, but while the violence is sectarian, the West does nothing.” The new US-Iranian rapprochement - fast-tracked to tackle terror - could change this, given the dramatic realignment of priorities and alliances created in its wake.

Third, is for neighboring states - and even those well beyond the region - to shut down their borders and enforce air-tight immigration security. On Syria’s borders we are already seeing both Turkey and Jordan taking some drastic measures, but the Iraqi border still remains porous and dangerous. Hence, Washington’s recent intel upgrade with Iraq.

Gravitating Toward The “Security” Priority

You can see the calculations changing in nations beyond the Security Arc already. Many keenly understand the vital role these four countries will have to play to stem militancy. All eyes right now are on Syria where the security situation is most precarious for the region – particularly in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey.

The latter three are the regional states most likely to support the Security Arc’s security objectives, albeit with reservations that accompany some fairly stark political differences.

Jordan, for example, has played “host” to an array of foreign special forces, troops, intelligence agencies and contractors, all focused on the task of bringing down the current Syrian government. But even its longtime financial dependency on Saudi Arabia is not worth the thousands of jihadis stationed on Jordanian territory, waiting to enter conflict zones. Arab media puts the number of Jordanian-origin jihadists inside the country at a horrifying 1,000. By contrast, the Europeans are terrified of even a handful of their own Islamist militants coming home.

According to a well-connected Lebanese source, around four months ago, Jordan, Syria and Iraq began quiet discussions (on separate bilateral tracks) about economic and security cooperation. The Jordanians initially balked at the security upgrade, but came around eventually. They’re not just worried about extremism, but about economic collapse too – either can set the other off. Worst of all would be complete irrelevance in a region undergoing rapid change. The Jordanians are not mavericks, and sandwiched as they are between Syria and Iraq, it is not hard to see their new direction.

Already, state security courts in Amman are imprisoning prominent Salafists and Jordanian fighters intent on crossing over into Syria. Jordan has shut down its border, enforced tight security around the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees, and is likely to take further measures as relations with the Syrian government continue to improve.

The Turks have also taken measures to tighten up their borders – in practice. An internal battle still rages within its Islamist establishment where a hot-headed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cast his lot almost three years ago with the Syrian opposition. His intransigence on this issue has cost Turkey: armed militants have found refuge inside Turkey’s border with Syria, political violence has seeped into the country, Turkey’s popularity has plummeted in the Arab world across all sects, Erdogan’s own suppression of protest has marked him a hypocrite, and Kurdish “autonomy” in Syria raises ambitions for Kurds in neighboring Turkey.

The Turks will understand the security imperative, but the clincher will be the economic ones. Syria needs a lot of reconstruction and Iraq has oil wealth to spend once calm returns. Furthermore, a gas pipeline initiative stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean will altogether bypass Turkey - if it doesn’t play ball.

Egypt is likely to fall in line with the Security Arc for the simple reason that it now faces the same problems. Indebted as the interim military government may be to the petrodollars of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf state sponsors, Egypt will be entirely bankrupt if religious militancy takes hold, as it now threatens to do. Attacks against security forces in the Sinai surged during Egypt’s popular uprising in early 2011, and have gained momentum again since last summer when the military establishment returned to power. Today, non-Bedouin militants from outside the area are flocking to the Sinai, stocked with advanced weaponry from conflicts in Libya and Sudan. During the short reign of the Muslim Brotherhood which endorsed Syrian rebels, thousands of Egyptians flocked to the fight in Syria. It is likely that a state governed or dominated by a secular military establishment will follow the Syrian example and implement heavy security solutions to break the back of extremists.

Whatever one's political inclinations, there is little doubt that inaction against Salafist militants at this juncture will lead to the disintegration of states throughout the Mideast.

The most dangerous hubs today are Syria, followed by Iraq, because of their political and geographical centrality in the region, and the likelihood of smaller or weaker neighbors being swept into the chaos.

The fight against extremism will therefore start inside the Security Arc, and will receive immediate support from the BRICS states and non-aligned nations. The West may choose to play key roles behind the scenes instead of unsettling their regional allies - at least for a while. But as confrontation escalates, countries will have to "take clear sides" in this pivotal battle, both in the Mideast and outside. Expect opportunism to play a hand - there may be a point at which a "stalemate" may be desirable for some. Few will dare to support the extremists, however, so also anticipate some serious narrative shifts on 'good-guys' and 'bad-guys' in the Mideast.

This, now, is the real War on Terror. But this time it will be led from inside the Middle East, gain universal support and change the regional political balance of power for generations to come.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Little Heat and Less Solace: Dark Solstice for UNRWA and Palestine's Diaspora

UNRWA’s Bitter Winter Solstice…and now Dershowitz!

by Franklin Lamb

Damascus  - At UNWRA offices around the Levant this Winter Solstice, the day which astronomically marks the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days, ‘winters midterm’, is not being celebrated as it has been since ancient times when festivals, gatherings, rituals feasting, singing, dancing, and bonfires were the norm.

The winter solstice historically has been vitally important because communities were not certain of living through the winter, and had to prepare during the previous nine months for dramatic rises in starvation, communicable diseases, and infant deaths due to hypothermia were particularly common during the first months of the winter, which became known as "the famine months" in the northern hemisphere.

Preparing for a tough next few months is what the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is doing these days and the UN Specialized Agency is working in the face of daunting odds. UNWRA was founded in 1949 and for more than 60 years it has been plagued by harassments, intimidation, and countless conspiracies to close it down waged by the international Zionist lobby increasingly trying to ‘put it out of its misery’ as Prime Minister Netanyahu recently demanded from the US Congress.

Many of UNWRA’s 30,000 employees, including those at the Beirut regional UNWRA HQ opposite Shatila Camp, as well as at the UNWRA HQ in Damascus on Mezzah boulevard where this observer is a regular visitor, talk these days about the grim link between the Syrian crisis and the conditions of over half a million Palestine refugees in UNWRA’s 57 camps, who have been living in exile for six decades. Other major concerns for UNWRA are the nearly one million Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war, as well as the more than one million refugees in Gaza suffering from climatic conditions exacerbated by the brutal Zionist occupation of Palestine.

The UNRWA Syria Regional Crisis Response Plan for 2014, published this week sets out the Agency’s hoped for projects to strengthen the resilience of Palestine refugees, and to help them weather the current dangers of the frigid temperatures and lack of heat and sanitation. This winters solstice, the outlook for Palestine refugees from Syria is increasingly bleak in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, as communities, livelihoods, assets and support networks painstakingly built over decades are being destroyed.

Proportionally, displacement among Palestinians is much higher than that of Syrians and the threats to safe refuge in Syria combined with severely restricted options for flight has confronted Palestine refugees with unprecedented challenges. UNRWA emergency assistance is normally delivered as part of its well-established programs in health, education, community development, microfinance, relief, youth training and employment. Delivered by Palestinian staff, this support provides a critical source of community and family resilience and continuity in the face of growing hardship. Of the 540,000 Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA in Syria, about 270,000 are displaced in the country, and an estimated 85,000 have fled. Fifty-one thousand have reached Lebanon, 11,000 have identified themselves in Jordan, 5,000 are in Egypt, and smaller numbers have reached Gaza, Turkey and farther afield. Those who have reached Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt face risky legal limbo compounded with living conditions so difficult that many decide to return to the dangers inside Syria.

UNRWA officials discuss in detail why the UN Agency requires US$ 417.4 million immediately to respond adequately to the urgent humanitarian needs of Palestine refugees inside Syria, US$ 90.4 million in Lebanon and US$ 14.6 million in Jordan. US$ 2.4 million is required for emergency response outside of the purview of its field offices, including even token cash assistance for Palestinian families from Syria in Gaza. Financial support to UNRWA has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by growing numbers of registered refugees, expanding need, and deepening poverty. As a result, the Agency's General Fund (GF), supporting UNRWA’s core activities and 97 per cent reliant on voluntary contributions, has begun each year with a large projected deficit. Currently the deficit stands at US$ 36 million.

Winter storm Alexa, the fiercest storm to hit Gaza and the West Bank in over 100 years, is still wreaking havoc and bringing misery to thousands. As of 12/19/13 40,000 people in Gaza have been driven from their homes due to extreme storm flooding. The flooding has been exacerbated by the fuel crisis that has left people without power for up to 21 hours a day, and forced raw sewage to flow through the streets. People’s lives and health are at grave risk. Gaza's Hamas government said 4,306 in all had been evacuated to schools and other centers used as makeshift shelters in the past four days. Gaza's 1.8 million people, trying to survive in one of the most densely populated tracts on earth, has also been enduring around 12-hour blackouts daily since the lone power plant was switched off last month due to a fuel shortage.

The territory lacks much basic civil infrastructure and lives under an Egyptian-Israeli blockade which curbs imports of fuel, building supplies and basic goods. UNWRA staff reports that the situation is worsening due to severe Israeli restrictions on the camps. Refugees cannot reconnect power lines that have been cut due to the heavy snow and have little access to basic necessities such as running water. The crises are deepening this winter in virtually all of the vulnerable refugee camps. The residents face severe power shortages and some on the West Bank also face systematic attacks by the Israeli army.

Other problems weighing heavily on UNWRA include strikes and threats of strikes by UNWRA employees protesting claimed low wages as well as expressed dismay at the UNRWA's widely weak humanitarian role in Gaza, which is racked by crises and disasters, most notably, the ongoing blockade and the recent displacement of many citizens as a result of floods. The workers' union at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza continued protests this week calling for salary increases. One Hamas official accused UNRWA officials of receiving exorbitant salaries without being up to the tasks it was assigned to do, stressing that this presidency must fulfill its commitments or resign. UNWRA officials who this observer spoke with denied this but declined any information about any UNWRA salaries.

UNRWA, like many aid agencies working in Syria, continues to loose staff as their 10th staffer, teacher Suzan Ghazazweh, a popular and accomplished teacher at Abbasyyeh School, Muzeirib, was killed by shrapnel in her home in the afternoon of 12/2/13 when a shell struck her residence in Shamal Al Khatt Quarter in Dera’a.

Enter Professor Alan Derschowitz!

Adding to UNWRA’s myriad problems is the fact that Professor Alan Dershowitz for some reason chose this Winter Solstice to retire after 46 years on the job at the Harvard Law School. Within hours, if he did do it not last night, Alan will depart Harvard’s hallowed halls in order to devote more time to his current central cause and arguably his most challenging case, “saving Israel from itself and from UNWRA!” as he told a Harvard Crimson stringer on background recently.

The past few years Professor Dershowitz would start off the beginning of semester classes apparently wanting to make a strong impression on his new student’s and to get their attention by offering them his essential view of the law. During the first or second class meeting he reportedly often made references to some of the 13 out of 15 major cases he “won” for the likes of Mike Tyson, Patty Hearst, Jim Bakker, Claus von Bulow and O. J. Simpson to name a few.

He would explain to his classes:
“All my big cases I won on a legal technicality! Those cases were lost causes. Otherwise, why would these clients come to me? The first thing to remember as you continue your legal studies is to forget what the law says or even what the facts of a case are! American appellate courts will decide the facts and the law of a case based on what the best advocate says they are. That’s why I win!” To one public international law class Professor Derschowitz reportedly sneered, “And you can forget about claims of human rights based on international law and universal standards of morality. You’ll never win s--- with that malarkey.”

As he begins preparation for his “legitimization case” on behalf of the last remaining 19th century colonial enterprise, the Zionist theft and continuing illegal occupation of Palestine, Alan, associates claim, will come out swinging against The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East During his teaching career Alan has been a loyal supporter and some claim a main instigator of AIPAC. He has joined the Zionist Lobby’s more than two decades of attacks on, and trying to cut off the funding of, UNWRA. But until now, he has not been ‘lead attorney of record’.

One source who meets with Professor Derschowitz from time to time in Washington, claims that Alan insists that UNWRA is another one of Israel’s growing number of existential threats “because UNWRA keeps the Palestinian refugee issue alive and allows human rights types to keep the issue of wrongful dispossession of their homes and land before the global community and with no end in sight.”

While making regular trips to Israel, Alan doesn’t come around Lebanon or Syria much and frankly this observer has only met the fellow a couple of times. He claims to have a photographic memory and maybe that is why he doesn’t seem to cotton much to this observer. He might remember, and even hold a grudge of some kind from our first meeting more than a quarter century ago when Alan came to see me in my Congressional House Judiciary office in the Rayburn building. I am not sure who referred him, but only an hour earlier, my boss, Congressman John Conyers, Chairman of Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, called to give me a last minute assignment.

It was simple enough and I had done it before. Congressman Conyers wanted me to escort a visiting Chief Justice, this time from Egypt’s highest court, to meet across the lawn from Rayburn at the Supreme Court with our CJ, Warren Burger. An easy enough assignment because Burger was always pleasant with a southern style aura of gentility about him. Fifteen minutes before Egypt’s CJ was due to join me, an intense, smallish, fast talking guy shows up and says he is from the Harvard Law School and must join “the Egyptian” during his meeting with Burger. Frankly it did not matter much to me one way of the other but I did call my supervisor, Hayden Gregory for advice and he said basically, “Not a chance! No way!” Only later did I learn Alan had rubbed Hayden the wrong way over proposed ‘ Federal determinate sentencing guidelines” an issue before our committee at the time.

Long story short, Alan would not take no for an answer. When I made it clear he was not invited and could not join the meeting he became angry and stormed off.

He may still remember but it was not personal with me and this is by way of saying that UNWRA had better baton down its hatches because they have more problems coming their way than they realize or are ready for.

Franklin Lamb in a visiting Professor of International Law at Damascus University Law School. He can be reached c/o

What Pemex Reform Means for Mexico

What Mexico’s “Pemex Reform” Really Means


Bottom Line: Mexico’s Senate on 11 December—after a 19-hour session—approved legislation to modernize the energy sector and open it up to private investment, though some of the bill’s points are still being debated due to ongoing opposition by leftist politicians.

Analysis: The Senate approved the legislation with 95 votes in favor (PRI, PAN, Partido Verde) and 28 against (PRD, PT, Movimiento Ciudadan).

The legislation will amend the Mexican Constitution and change the status of Pemex and CFE (Federal Electric Commission) from public utilities to state-owned businesses. As companies, these enterprises would have autonomy to issue contracts to meet their principal goal of providing Mexico with its long-term energy needs and turning a profit.

Under current law, Pemex is permitted to issue particular service contracts for a set payment with outside providers, an unappealing arrangement for service providers. Oil production today is 25% lower than at its peak a decade ago, and in order to prevent Mexico’s becoming a net energy importer Pemex officials estimate they need to more than double annual capital investment of $25 billion. The only way to draw billions in capital is to permit private investment in the sector.

President Enrique Peña Nieto’s PRI party set out a much more moderate plan on 12 August 2013, which limited contracts to profit-sharing without any share in oil. That proposal was ill-received by potential investors, who insist that if Mexico is to pass reforms, it should make more drastic changes. (On the other hand, the conservative PAN party floated their ideal outcome, including outright concession issuance and permission to book oil reserves, in July 2013 to the outrage of Mexican centrists.)

Among the companies that have expressed interest in partnering with Pemex to explore untapped deep-water reserves in the Gulf of Mexico are Shell, Exxon, Repsol and Petrobras. The language of the bill they are considering now allows for “risk contracts” in which the “owner of the resources [Mexico] transfers the economic risk of exploiting those resources to a third party without lessening its ownership.” The third party, called a “contractor” or “operator” receives compensation tied to their success in exploiting said resource, though the state would retain the majority. Companies will not be permitted to count unproduced reserves on their ledgers, although they can list final contracts and projected profits.

In addition, the proposed reform would establish a sovereign wealth fund to manage and invest Pemex’s profits. As far as the impact on electrical distribution and transmission, the reforms leave CFE as a monopoly, though it opens the door to contracts for electric generation by outside parties, though “concessions” are explicitly prohibited.

The current text, worked out in closed-door sessions this week by the PRI and PAN parties, contemplates both profit-sharing and production-sharing agreements. Although there is no question that the PRD will voice loud dissent (and try to mobilize popular protests), the bill appears likely to pass this month, with the support of the PAN, PRI and Green Party legislators.

The over-arching Pacto por Mexico, a pledge by the three main parties (PAN, PRI and PRD) to cooperate for the good of the nation to enact 95 initiatives, large and small, fell apart on 28 November 2013 when the PRD exited over the issue of energy reform. Ironically, their withdrawal paved the way for the current PAN/PRI compromise since there was no longer any incentive to moderate the bill in the hope of appeasing the PRD. The PRD’s opposition is in synch with popular opposition to opening up Pemex; many Mexicans believe current reforms are just the beginning of a process that will end up stripping them of oil and gas resources. Though rhetoric by leftist leaders such as Andrés Manuel López Obrador contributes to popular skepticism of liberal reforms, the current generation of Mexicans also witnessed the telecom privatization of 1990 legislation that lead to comparatively poor and expensive phone service for the masses while enriching a few, such as billionaire Carlos Slim.

Yet under the status quo, Pemex affords thousands of unproductive, but unionized, workers paychecks and pensions at a cost that has become unsustainable. Proponents of the current plan to open the sector must focus on the potential for GDP growth and broad prosperity that should accompany a successful energy sector.

Recommendation: Prepare for this bill to go all the way through to the end. The energy reform bill is now under consideration by the House of Representatives, where it is also likely to pass. Once final, state oil company Pemex is expected to submit to the Secretary of Energy (SENER) the blocks where it would like to issue contracts within 60 days. Then SENER has 180 days to approve or reject those requests, resulting in "Round Zero" of gas and oil contracts in Mexico. Significantly for foreign investors, the STPRM - Sindicato de Trabajadores Petroleros de la República Mexicana or Mexican Oil Workers' Union - will be dislodged from the Pemex board. Previously they held 5 of 15 seats -- now there will be ten seats, evenly divided between government officials and independent counsel.

Wedding Parts: Rupert and His Comic Carnage Coverage

“Bride and Boom!”  We’re Number One... In Obliterating Wedding Parties

by Tom Engelhardt - TomDispatch

The headline -- “Bride and Boom!” -- was spectacular, if you think killing people in distant lands is a blast and a half. Of course, you have to imagine that smirk line in giant black letters with a monstrous exclamation point covering most of the bottom third of the front page of the Murdoch-owned New York Post. The reference was to a caravan of vehicles on its way to or from a wedding in Yemen that was eviscerated, evidently by a U.S. drone via one of those “surgical” strikes of which Washington is so proud. As one report put it, “Scorched vehicles and body parts were left scattered on the road.”

It goes without saying that such a headline could only be applied to assumedly dangerous foreigners -- “terror” or “al-Qaeda suspects” -- in distant lands whose deaths carry a certain quotient of weirdness and even amusement with them. Try to imagine the equivalent for the Newtown massacre the day after Adam Lanza broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School and began killing children and teachers. Since even the New York Post wouldn’t do such a thing, let’s posit that the Yemen Post did, that playing off the phrase “head of the class,” their headline was: “Dead of the Class!” (with that same giant exclamation point). It would be sacrilege. The media would descend. The tastelessness of Arabs would be denounced all the way up to the White House. You’d hear about the callousness of foreigners for days.

And were a wedding party to be obliterated on a highway anywhere in America on the way to, say, a rehearsal dinner, whatever the cause, it would be a 24/7 tragedy. Our lives would be filled with news of it. Count on that.

But a bunch of Arabs in a country few in the U.S. had ever heard of before we started sending in the drones? No such luck, so if you’re a Murdoch tabloid, it’s open season, no consequences guaranteed. 
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“Bride and Boom!”  We’re Number One... In Obliterating Wedding Parties

by Tom Engelhardt

As it happens, “Bride and Boom!” isn’t even an original. It turns out to be a stock Post headline. Google it and you’ll find that, since 9/11, the paper has used it at least twice before last week, and never for the good guys: once in 2005, for “the first bomb-making husband and wife,” two Palestinian newlyweds arrested by the Israelis; and once in 2007, for a story about a “bride,” decked out in a “princess-style wedding gown,” with her “groom.” Their car was stopped at a checkpoint in Iraq by our Iraqis, and both of them turned out to be male “terrorists” in a “nutty nuptial party.” Ba-boom!

As it happened, the article by Andy Soltis accompanying the Post headline last week began quite inaccurately. “A U.S. drone strike targeting al-Qaeda militants in Yemen,” went the first line, “took out an unlikely target on Thursday -- a wedding party heading to the festivities.”

Soltis can, however, be forgiven his ignorance. In this country, no one bothers to count up wedding parties wiped out by U.S. air power. If they did, Soltis would have known that the accurate line, given the history of U.S. war-making since December 2001 when the first party of Afghan wedding revelers was wiped out (only two women surviving), would have been: “A U.S. drone... took out a likely target.”

After all, by the count of TomDispatch, this is at least the eighth wedding party reported wiped out, totally or in part, since the Afghan War began and it extends the extermination of wedding celebrants from the air to a third country -- six destroyed in Afghanistan, one in Iraq, and now the first in Yemen. And in all those years, reporters covering these “incidents” never seem to notice that similar events had occurred previously. Sometimes whole wedding parties were slaughtered, sometimes just the bride or groom’s parties were hit. Estimated total dead from the eight incidents: almost 300 Afghans, Iraqis, and Yemenis. And keep in mind that, in these years, weddings haven’t been the only rites hit. U.S. air power has struck gatherings ranging from funerals to a baby-naming ceremony.

The only thing that made the Yemeni incident unique was the drone. The previous strikes were reportedly by piloted aircraft.

Non-tabloid papers were far more polite in their headlines and accounts, though they did reflect utter confusion about what had happened in a distant part of distant Yemen. The wedding caravan of vehicles was going to a wedding -- or coming back. Fifteen were definitively dead. Or 11. Or 13. Or 14. Or 17. The attacking plane had aimed for al-Qaeda targets and hit the wedding party “by mistake.” Or al-Qaeda “suspects” had been among the wedding party, though all reports agree that innocent wedding goers died. Accounts of what happened from Yemeni officials differed, even as that country’s parliamentarians demanded an end to the U.S. drone campaign in their country. The Obama administration refused to comment. It was generally reported that this strike, like others before it, had -- strangely enough -- upset Yemenis and made them more amenable to the propaganda of al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.

In the end, reports on a wedding slaughter in a distant land are generally relegated to the inside pages of the paper and passing notice on the TV news, an event instantly trumped by almost anything whatsoever -- a shooting in a school anywhere in the U.S., snow storms across the Northeast, you name it -- and promptly buried and forgotten.

And yet, in a country that tends to value records, this represents record-making material. After all, what are the odds of knocking off all or parts of eight wedding parties in the space of a little more than a decade (assuming, of course, that the destruction of other wedding parties or the killing of other wedding goers in America’s distant war zones hasn’t gone unreported). If the Taliban or the Iranians or the North Koreans had piled up such figures -- and indeed the Taliban has done wedding damage via roadside bombs and suicide bombers -- we would know just what to think of them. We would classify them as barbarians, savages, evildoers.

You might imagine that such a traffic jam of death and destruction would at least merit some longer-term attention, thought, analysis, or discussion here. But with the rarest of exceptions, it’s nowhere to be found, right, left, or center, in Washington or Topeka, in everyday conversation or think-tank speak. And keep in mind that we’re talking about a country where the slaughter of innocents -- in elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and universities, workplaces and movie theaters, parking lots and naval shipyards -- is given endless attention, carefully toted up, discussed and debated until “closure” is reached.

And yet no one here even thinks to ask how so many wedding parties in foreign lands could be so repeatedly taken out. Is the U.S. simply targeting weddings purposely? Not likely. Could it reflect the fact that, despite all the discussion of the “surgical precision” of American air power, pilots have remarkably little idea what’s really going on below them or who exactly, in lands where American intelligence must be half-blind, they are aiming at? That, at least, seems likely.

Or if "they" gather in certain regions, does American intelligence just assume that the crowd must be "enemy" in nature? (As an American general said about a wedding party attacked in Western Iraq, “How many people go to the middle of the desert... to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?”) Or is it possible that, in our global war zones, a hint that enemy “suspects” might be among a party of celebrants means that the party itself is fair game, that it’s open season no matter who might be in the crowd?

In this same spirit, the U.S. drone campaigns are said to launch what in drone-speak are called "signature strikes" -- that is, strikes not against identified individuals, but against "a pre-identified 'signature' of behavior that the U.S. links to militant activity." In other words, the U.S. launches drone strikes against groups or individuals whose behavior simply fits a “suspect” category: young men of military age carrying weapons, for instance (in areas where carrying a weapon may be the norm no matter who you are). In a more general sense, however, the obliterated wedding party may be the true signature strike of the post 9/11 era of American war-making, the strike that should, but never will, remind Americans that the war on terror was and remains, for others in distant lands, a war of terror, a fearsome creation to which we are conveniently blind.

Consider it a record. For the period since September 11, 2001, we’re number one... in obliterating wedding parties! In those years, whether we care to know it or not, “till death do us part” has gained a far grimmer meaning.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

[Note on American air power and wedding parties: TomDispatch has attempted over the years to record and point out the cumulative nature of these “incidents.” Check out, for instance, “The Wedding Crashers,” or a 2012 piece, “It Couldn’t Happen Here, It Does Happen There.” What follows, gathered by TomDispatch’s Erika Eichelberger, are links to the other seven wedding massacres with brief descriptions of what is known: December 29, 2001, Paktia Province, Afghanistan (more than 100 revelers die in a village in Eastern Afghanistan after an attack by B-52 and B-1B bombers); May 17, 2002, Khost Province, Afghanistan (at least 10 Afghans in a wedding celebration die when U.S. helicopters and planes attack a village); July 1, 2002, Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan (at least 30, and possibly 40, celebrants die when attacked by a B-52 bomber and an AC-130 helicopter); May 20, 2004, Mukaradeeb, Iraq (at least 42 dead, including “27 members of the [family hosting the wedding ceremony], their wedding guests, and even the band of musicians hired to play at the ceremony” in an attack by American jets); July 6, 2008, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan (at least 47 dead, 39 of them women and children, including the bride, among a party escorting that bride to the groom’s house -- from a missile attack by jet aircraft); August 2008, Laghman Province, Afghanistan (16 killed, including 12 members of the family hosting the wedding, in an attack by “American bombers”); June 8, 2012, Logar Province, Afghanistan (18 killed, half of them children, when Taliban fighters take shelter amid a wedding party. This was perhaps the only case among the eight wedding incidents in which the U.S. offered an apology).]

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Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt